Achieving that high performance – excellence and why I don’t play the piano!

Aristotle, the philosopher, had it exactly right 2000 years ago: “We are what we repeatedly do.”  Experience shows that by relying on highly specific practices, we can dramatically improve skills ranging from empathy, to focus, to creativity, to summoning positive emotions, to deeply relaxing.

Anders Ericsson is one of the world’s leading researchers into high performance. For more than two decades, Ericsson has been making the case that it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work — something he calls “deliberate practice That notion can be wonderfully empowering. It shows we can be in control of at least part of our own fate.   But it is also daunting. One of Ericsson’s central findings is that practice is not only the most important ingredient  in success, but also the most difficult and probably the least enjoyable. Excellence requires dedication and focus.  But it worries me on other fronts!  Do I want to be excellent at one thing or good enough at a range of tasks that help me lead a rounded and satisfying life?  I suppose I want to be more than good at something so that I can make a real contribution to the world! Call that egotistical but there it is!  But I want to be pretty good at a range of things and I want to be broad enough to take to take the helicopter view over the world that makes for a good leader!

Anyway if you want to be pretty good at something and still keep your wider perspective here are some pointers!

  1. Lead with what you love. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance. Choose as your key skill something you really enjoy and love doing
  2. Do the hardest part first. Learning anything is part grind and grunt! We all move instinctively toward pleasure and away from pain. Most great performers, Ericsson and others have found, delay gratification and take on the difficult work of practice first, before they do anything else. Dedicate the time in the day when you have most energy to the part you like least.  Do it well and get it out of the way!
  3. Practice, practice,practice without interruption for short periods of no longer than 90 minutes and then take a break. Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. But don’t spend all day! The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day. And you need the rest of the time for wider pursuits and other interests
  4. Seek feedback, but not too much. The simpler and more precise the feedback, the more equipped you are to make adjustments. Too much feedback, too often, overwhelms and erodes confidence.  Find people you trust, who like you, to give honest feedback in the right doses!
  5. Take regular breaks. Just like in the gym, relaxing after intense effort provides an opportunity to rejuvenate. But it also allows you to metabolize and embed learning. It’s also during rest that the right hemisphere becomes more dominant, so you could so something creative during your break and find a whole new world of interests.
  6. Build you practice into a ritual . Researcher Roy Baumeister has found, that very few of us of us have huge amounts of will and resolutiont. The best way to insure you’ll take on difficult tasks is to build rituals — specific, inviolable times at which you do them, so that over time you do them without having to squander energy thinking about them.
  7. Review, review, review Be prepared to take a step back sometimes and review your progress.  How does the skill you are acquiring fit in with your rounded life?  How is it going to contribute your future success and happiness?  Be prepared to change your plans in the light of your learning.

As for that piano, my aunt was a pianist at concert performance level!  When I was a small child she attempted to teach me to play.  She became incredibly frustrated because I would find every excuse not to practice.  I never did learn to play!  But her lesson that the hard work gets done first has stayed with me throughout life!  I regret not being able to play but I value my creative childhood!  I spent my time exploring and that is a valuable skill that has stayed with me throughout life!

Outwitting the lovely Ondine, or making the right choices in hard times!

I watched a piece on breakfast television about a small child with something that sounded sinister, Ondine’s Curse.  This is a respiratory disorder that is fatal if untreated as sufferers stop breathing during sleep. It is very rare and the name is a reference to the myth of Ondine, a water nymph who had an unfaithful mortal lover. He swore to her that his every waking breath would be a testimony of his love. He was unfaithful so she cursed him; if he should fall asleep, he would forget to breathe. Eventually, he fell asleep and his breathing stopped. Anyway the story this morning was really about the child being able to be at home for Christmas because someone had invented a ventilator that was small enough for a child’s room!

Ventilators are usually large, cumbersome and difficult to accommodate! So this invention, not only adds to the happiness of a small child and her family, it also reduces the cost of her care to the NHS. No longer will she need expensive hospital resources, even with back up at home from community nursing staff, there will be a saving!

What struck me most was the need to take a long view when reducing costs. Inventing new equipment to reduce costs (and hopefully improve quality) long-term takes time and investment. Also, it requires creativity and teamwork! None of these qualities thrive in hard and uncaring environments. To achieve a climate that can deliver long-term ‘efficiency’ improvements while maintaining (or even improving) quality takes great leadership.

Exam question for December 2010 – do you think your leadership abilities would be up to the challenge? How are you going to maintain/improve them next year?

I would like to wish all readers a very Happy Christmas and a very creative New Year in this time of challenge! I hope you will come back because there will be lots more here next year to help you manage the changes you face!

MANAGING CHANGE – SIX STEPS TO IMPROVING QUALITY – SETTING UP A QUALITY STANDARD

In managing change as well as projects and programmes, we all talk a lot about quality and quality standards but how to you establish a standard.  Here are some tips

  1. Do you already have quality standards in your organization. Do you work in a large organization.  If so, someone has probably done the job for you.  If you have a central programme or portfolio office or Centre of Excellence they should be able to guide and advise you. If you have a central unit the chances are, you are required to use their standards anyway.   Even if you don’t have a central unit ask other managers what they use and consider using their’s as a starting point from which to develop your own ideas!
  2. Set up a quality group. Assemble a team from those with an interest in your work or your  project .  Start out by asking them what they think acceptable standards would be for the area they are interested in.  Then use them to monitor as you go to make sure you achieve the standard.    You’d be surprised how willing people are to help with this kind of activity!
  3. Understand how others perceive quality. You can conduct interviews with interested people and your stakeholders to ensure you understand the expectations for what you are trying to deliver.  For example, for an IT project, you could discuss expectations with managers about  usability and support. Ask them what they think is needed to deliver a successful project. You may think this is an obvious question, but some responses may give you a very different perspective on your stakeholders’ values, and also what isn’t important to them. Don’t underestimate the power of these interviews: they can help to align your perceptions of quality with those who have the major interest in what you do!
  4. Start with a template. There are lots of standard quality plans and templates out there – trying searching on the internet!  So you shouldn’t have to start with a blank sheet of paper. Use a good, robust template with options to pick and choose what might apply to your organization and project.
  5. Develop a consequence for each quality standard. For each standard you should identify what will happen if you don’t achieve it!  If the answer is not much, then it isn’t a real quality standard .  Don’t throw everything in – focus on what really counts.
  6. Review. Putting standards in place is a great way to ensure the quality of what you are delivering.  But you need to make sure they continue to be right!  Include a regular review.   Find whether or not they were used and what happened as a  result.  Revise and up date them as necessary to ensure they continue to  meet your organization’s needs.